From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 31, 2009*: Every cloud must have its golden backing.

The concept of cloud computing is far from new. A good case can be made to show that a rather steady move toward the cloud has been underway at least since the World Wide Web became mainstream. To a certain extent, we've had the cloud for years: Online bookmarking sites have been around for almost a decade, and "virtual hard drives" have been available for much of that time as well. If any particular landmark might be considered a turning point, a good case might be made for when web-based email became recognized as a fully functional alternative to a hard-drive based email client. At that point, if not well before, it would seem that an extensive, perhaps even complete, move to the cloud was inevitable.

What was inevitable to me, however, was apparently still premature for others. Though the nascent concept of the cloud may have been brewing and taking some sort of ephemeral shape for well over a decade, for many, and especially for the enterprise the infrastructure simply wasn't stable or secure enough. Today, however, numerous internet pundits seem to be of the opinion that the necessary conditions have ripened to the point at which the cloud is truly ready for mainstream use. In other words, though for quite a while already the cloud may have been accessible to us, and perhaps even engulfing us, it can now be safely and securely used. And that means that soon we'll all be using it, even if we don't know that what we're using is the cloud.

If there's anything that resembles a cloud manifesto I suppose it would be Kevin Kelly's recent (in time for this column) post Better than Owning. Kelly seems intent on convincing us that:

Ownership is not as important as it once was.
Interestingly, he attempts to convince us of this not by telling us that there's something different or special about the digital, but instead by showing us that in the physical world as well, our ability to use something takes precedence over our ability to possess it. As an example he reminds us that we don't own the roads we use. Perhaps in a similar fashion, though my LP collection is extensive, I can't remember the last time I bought a music disc, and pretty much since the decline of Napster I haven't downloaded music with the intention of saving it. The possibility of downloading has, as I noted over six years ago, however, had a tremendous influence on both my listening and collecting habits. I tend to agree with Kelly that when I have access to pretty much anything I might want to listen to, I no longer feel any need to actually own the music.

As willing as I may be to trust the cloud, it's still hard not to approach it with a bit of trepidation. Even on the internet there's no such thing as a free lunch, and this means that even when I'm being offered a service with only minimal strings, I'm still aware that they're there, and most definitely attached. Personally, I've grown used to the idea that Google is rather constantly monitoring my web habits, and storing that information for some kind of possible future use. Perhaps I should be more paranoid, but my take on this is that even if I don't put too much faith in Google's motto of "Don't be Evil", I still assume that even with its vast resources of computing power, it simply takes too much effort to do much with this information, and for too little gain. Actually, my concern stems much less from the suspicion that somewhere along the line Google, or some other online giant, is going to make use of the information that's been collected about me, and much more from the understanding that my online needs may not meet the long term strategies of the companies offering me their services. Which is precisely what happened this month with Google Notebook.

When, approximately two and a half years ago, Google Notebook launched, I was elated. Even though (as I noted then) it still didn't do all of what I'd hoped it would, this was the sort of tool that could permit me to take notes online in a manner similar to what I'd grown used to as a serious notetaker. Since then a number of improvements have been added which definitely improved the tool and brought it closer to the tool I'd envisioned for myself. But then this month Google announced that it was discontinuing development on Notebook and was no longer accepting new users. Here was a tool that was being phased out, and the reason seemed very simple - it didn't generate revenues.

And this, I suppose, invariably brings us back to the cloud, and compels us to look upon it from a slightly different perspective. It appears that while I happily accepted the idea of the cloud as my info-playground, a space via which I could have continual access to my writing, my thoughts, my bookmarks, and more, the people offering it to me were more interested in work than in play, and the business they were in was making money. It should have been obvious from the very beginning that there was a monetary incentive to providing me with this playground, but obvious or not, I was able to ignore that fact until the already ephemeral cloud started to actually scatter or even dissolve into non-existence. Clouds may be little more than aggregated condensation, but something has to hold them together, and in the case of the digital cloud, that something is money. Companies were willing to make the initial expenditures to provide me with my playground, but saw no point in continuing to do so when they weren't gaining anything from it. No doubt there was a certain degree of naivete to the assumption that the cloud was perhaps outside the realm of economics, was able to suspend itself up in the cybersky without strings. In that respect there's probably no justification in feeling melancholy toward the realization of the truth. And yet, from its inception there was something about the intangible, non-physical, qualities of the internet that permitted, and even invited, information to freely and easily transcend time and place, thus allowing me to think that perhaps in cyberspace things might be different than here on earth.

On the other hand, what for me may have been a disappointing realization, may well be the opportunity that businesses have been waiting for in order to make their leap to the cloud a move worth making. Knowing that the companies that offer access to the cloud believe in its sustainability, and are convinced that they can profit from that access probably creates a sense of security and instills confidence. The ReadWriteWeb blog recently conducted a survey among its readers, asking them (in general early adopters) whether they trust the cloud. The results were mixed, but what they make clear is that businesses and individual users hold significantly different views on the subject:
It seems that trusting the cloud wasn't a simple "yes" or "no" question. Some said the cloud was trustworthy enough for non-critical data, but not for secure and private communications, such as those used in the enterprise.
Businesspeople who saw definite advantages in having the anytime/anywhere access that storing information in the cloud offers still based their decision to use or to forego the cloud on whether they truly trust their information to be secure. Slightly after that first survey, ReadWriteWeb reported on a different survey conducted among mid-sized businesses:
Mid-sized businesses knew significantly more about cloud services or were at least using them or planning to use them in the near future. Small businesses, on the other hand, were ill-informed, and 59% of those surveyed had no plans to use the cloud at all.
In other words, those of us with little to lose other than our "personal" information may have no problem jumping to the cloud, but companies faced with the possibility of losing their livelihood are very hesitant about making that jump. And it's worth remembering that the world isn't divided into two neat groups - those who make "personal" use of the web, and those who are in business.

Keeping uninvited and unwanted eyes away from an organization's information is a major concern, though it's perhaps still secondary to the question of whether companies can count on cloud-based information not vanishing into air. Until these concerns are satisfactorily met, it seems that the enterprise is going to perhaps test the waters, but will refrain from truly jumping in. Even if the chances of a data loss due to a local hard-drive crash are probably considerably greater than the chances of a data loss somewhere in the well-backed up cloud, worries such as this are certainly justified. These fears derive from the well established feeling that what's real is what we can hold in our hands. For all I know, this may be an evolutionarily developed trait, and unlearning it may be extremely difficult. Kevin Kelly may represent the logical next step in our march toward an all-encompassing digitality, but most of us probably still adhere to the opinion voiced by one of the respondees to his post:
... data that is important to you will need to be archived and stored locally in some form.
What may, however, push us more and more toward the cloud is a realization that with so much information out there, maybe our own will become less and less important to us. When we're swimming in a vast cloud of information, we may start to feel that it's not really as important as we once thought it was, and that we have less reason to remain attached to it. We'll turn to the cloud both to store and to access our information. But at a certain point, we'll have so much of it "out there" that we won't feel a need to keep track of it. We may realize that out of sight may very legitimately, and even thankfully, be out of mind.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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